Gravitational Waves, Search, and Unity Connect Online

The two most thought-provoking events of my week were the announcement of the detection of gravitational waves and the search panel I was on at Unity Connect Online.

Of course, you can’t possibly compare these events in importance. Finding gravitational waves is completely mind-blowing and LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) is a huge step forward, at the level of the invention of the telescope but with an unfathomable resolution of 10^21.  But it’s fun to find some analogies. Also, I was a physics nut before I got into information science, and there are some parallels, especially for history-of-science devotees.

Or perhaps my mind just works in weird ways.

  • Deep unfathomable math: the math behind gravitational waves is pretty hairy, deriving from the theory of relativity and coupled Maxwell-Einstein equations. The little I’ve learned about it includes the fact that, aside from the simplest scenarios, it’s solved numerically (by computers, not on paper through equations).The math behind search is also quite complex, also solved numerically, and rarely spoken of. It’s not a single thing, since search involves multiple algorithms usually in combination. The math includes a lot of linear algebra, information theory, and projections of high-order dimensional spaces. Here’s one of my favorite books on the subject.
  • 100-year predictions:  Einstein predicted gravitational waves in 1916, almost exactly 100 years before they were observed, and even tried to detect them – but the necessary technology wasn’t even imagined yet. The NSF started funding LIDO 60 years later, and kept funding it for 40 years to get to this breakthrough.
  • Paul Otlet, one of the fathers of information science (who among many other things came up with microfiche in 1906) predicted search engines (and also hyperlinks, the world-wide web, and social networks) – but the necessary technology wasn’t even imagined yet. This thread was picked up years later by another remarkable scientist, Vannevar Bush, in his memex project – also funded by the NSF. Bush predicted in the early 1950’s – just as computers (and the first search software)  were emerging –  that information overload would become a major problem.
  • More than meets the eye: the LIGO scientists have done a fabulous job explaining gravitational waves and showing how they work. But just say ‘two colliding black holes’ and you know there’s an incredible amount going on under the surface (and light can’t get out anyway). Search technology is also deceptively simple on the outside, and devilishly complicated on the inside.
  • Just the beginning: this is a new era in astronomy; gravitational waves provide an entirely new window on the universe, so we’re just at the start despite 40 years of work. Search is also an unsolved problem with vast potential, and there are constantly new waves of innovation. We’re just at the start.
  • Global live conference: The press conference about the gravitational wave discovery had four luminary experts from four places around the globe, streamed live. The Unity Connect search panel also had four experts, in four time zones spread across 11 hours, streamed live. Oh, and the panel was put together by Dan Holme, who’s into waves of a different kind (Dan lives on Maui).

So there you have it – aren’t the parallels remarkable? It is admittedly frivolous to compare gravitational waves and search, much less tossing in a panel that just happened to be within a day of the LIGO announcement. But I hope you enjoyed it.

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